Friday, 14 June 2013

Night of the Living Dead - Shakespeare and Romero

Night of the Living Dead. The power of the Zombie should not be underestimated. Just when you think they’re dead they’re coming back to life again. (Is the guy on the right a Nazi revivalist?)

Here be Monsters. Here be Money. Grotesque horror and gothic fiction sells because it plays to our deep concerns and insecurities. And, to put it crudely, it’s entertaining.

Since the beginning of modern gothic and horror fiction in the eighteenth-century critics have worried about its quality. For each spectator who wants to indulge in the cannibal feast of laughter there is another who wants to uncover the deeper meanings and ideological significance. The two spectators can seldom be reconciled in their different approaches.

It’s no secret that Romero’s film Night of the Living Dead plays well to the fashionable taste for the bizarre. He said that he was catering to a known taste at the time. 

Perhaps an enduring aspect of its appeal was it ability to reflect deeper concerns about the outsider; racism; family relations; cannibalism and taboos; contagion and contamination; the parasitic vampire; the dead weight of the past preying on the present. 

The return of the repressed is another formula, from the psychoanalytic field, that supports the re-incarnation of the living dead theme into the present. 

Let’s admit that film too, as a technology based on spectres and animation, has always been at the forefront of projecting our unconscious onto gigantic screens. What the ego edits out, the Id-film projects back.

Clearly Night of the Living Dead is well suited to a variety of theoretical and ideological approaches. The  notion that the film encapsulates a variety of gothic and grotesque themes which are cross-cultural and recurring across time also helps to explain its continuing appeal to new audiences.

But I often find that there is a resistance to more political interpretations (such as seeing horror films as a replay of grotesque war scenarios displaced onto the home territory – see below). Without speaking about any war in specific terms, the splatter and horror genres zoom in with grotesque effects on human aggression and violence.

With a budget of of $114,000 Romero’s film Night of the Living Dead (NLD) went on to make $40m at the box office in 1961 and has since earned $291m. At first ten members of the production crew stumped up $600 each. It demonstrates admirably what a small group can accomplish where there is a will to succeed.

It’s now a free commons film and rose to be the Internet Archive’s second most downloaded film in 2010, with over 700,000 hits.

Research has show that the film emerged from an  horror comedy co-written by John Russo and George A. Romero, with the catchy title Monster Flick. It is also no secret that the film was inspired by a horror/science fiction novel by Richard Matheson called I Am Legend (1954). The ‘vampiric’ novel dealt with a plague situated in a futuristic Los Angeles. In gothic writing there are few originals.

There is evidence that the dialogue was at times unscripted or improvised and that Duane Jones upgraded Ben Huss’s role in the film to make the character better educated like himself.

The final scene in which the black hero becomes an accidental victim is rather like a KKK lynch mob.

The notion that the film is open to political interpretation will always be open to question. That it is a comment on, or influenced by the war in Vietnam may also seem far-fetched. But I was intrigued to come across some interesting comments from Tom Savini, a special effects artist who worked on later Romero films:

"Some people die with one eye open and one eye half-closed, sometimes people die with smiles on their faces because the jaw is always slack. I incorporated the feeling of the stuff I saw in Vietnam into my work."

Savini worked on films such as Deathdream (1972) “in which a Vietnam MIA  […] shows up alive on his family’s doorstep as a slowly disintegrating zombie-vampire.” (Skal: 308) and it has also been suggested that the film “oddly echoes Sticks and Bones (1972), in which a blinded soldier returns from Vietnam and ‘sees’ for the first time the monstrousness of his own family.” (Skal: 308-9)

The combination of death and humour “smiles on their faces” brings us to the notion that these films are grotesque, rather than pure horror.

Another recurring feature of the monstrous is the inability to kill it off. It keeps coming back.

Another feature of the monstrous and the grotesque is that it typically combines elements of the life-affirming and the life-denying; blindness and insight; the erotic and the dead (eros and thanatos); flowering and decaying; attraction and repulsion; the joke as frivolity and insecurity. 

Is it time, perhaps to celebrate the negotiation of another opposition that plagues us: education and entertainment?

None of that is new, of course, as anyone who has watched Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus or King Lear will know. G. Wilson Knight brilliantly explored Shakespeare characteristic use of grotesque comedy.

To deny the comic components in Shakespeare’s tragedies is to miss the point. Yorick was poor, for instance, but he was also, like Hamlet, a clown. Hamlet is a casebook on humour; from biting satire to practical jokes.

When I contemplate the work of the Bard, I’m thinking The Might of the Living Dead. Or, The Night of the Laughing Dead

Do I see a re-make coming on ...

Titus at The Globe London


David J. Skal, (1993/2001) The Monster Show. Faber and Faber.

The Rise of Zombie Studies. Here.

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